Katrina's Surge, Part 6

A Weather Underground 16 part series about Hurricane Katrina, by Margie Kieper.

For the remainder of the month, we're traveling the coastline destroyed by Hurricane Katrina's record storm surge. This is something that has never been shown on the news or talked about, either in the overall, or in detail. What you'll be seeing here is what people on the Gulf Coast have been calling the “Invisible Coastline” for almost a year now.

Today's journey takes us to the unincorporated areas of Orleans Parish, which include Chef Menteur, Venetian Isles, Greens Ditch, historic Pike Fort, Lake Catherine, and Rigolets. These run along a peninsula and strait of land separating Lake Borgne and Lake Ponchartrain, and were extremely vulnerable to surge. But they had not experienced the type of surge that came with Katrina for over 150 years.

Chef Menteur, Orleans Parish LA

Image courtesy of Google Maps

Mapquest -- Lake Catherine, Orleans Parish

Image courtesy of Mapquest

One of the things that I have heard many times – and heard again tonight – is why do people live on the Gulf Coast anyway? Why don't they just leave? As if it is nothing more than some tiny strip of obviously-vulnerable beach property, where people have moved to fairly recently, building luxury beachfront homes in between large warning signs, in the smug confidence that in the even of a disaster, insurance coverage and tax monies will bail them out so they can maintain a luxe lifestyle. My stock reply to that comment is, well, I'm sure you're right, and by that same logic everyone should leave New York City as well. Then I have to explain that city is also built on a vulnerable flood plain. Then I usually ask, since I'm in Minnesota, if they also agree that all the communities along the Red River that are prone to flooding, like Grand Forks and Fargo, or other cities that have rivers running through them, like Des Moines, or, along the Mississippi River, St. Louis or Memphis, among others, should also be abandoned -- not to mention Philadelphia or Sacramento. Why on earth would people move to those places that are so prone to flooding? And while we're on that topic, why would people live in Southern California; everyone knows they're going to get nailed by an earthquake or wildfire or landslide sooner or later. And the entire Pacific Northwest is right in the middle of a number of active volcanoes, and the coast there is vulnerable to a tsunami if that fault offshore ever shifts in an earthquake. And, what about the entire center section of the country known as Tornado Alley…why is my tax money being wasted to subsidize reconstruction because these rich people in Kansas and Oklahoma build houses right where they can be so easily destroyed. :-)

I can go on for quite awhile until it becomes apparent that there really isn't some place to live that is completely safe from natural disasters, that the Gulf Coast is not a conclave of multimillion dollar homes, is hardly unique in that it is vulnerable to nature, and is a substantially-sized area of the country, full of natural and industrial resources, settled years before the thirteen colonies became states, home to generations of people, that cannot simply be abandoned.

I then talk about the poor to modest lifestyle of most coastal residents, the failure of insurance companies to provide proper coverage or to make good on existing policies, and the fact that what brought coastal residents through the days and weeks after the storm was not federal government support, which was almost nonexistent, but a tremendous outpouring of help from private individuals; people and organizations who, without waiting to hear any news, knew that their help would be urgently needed, and immediately sent 18-wheelers and rental trucks full of supplies down to the coast.

We'll keep moving along the coast, but we're never going to find footprints of those imaginary luxury beachfront homes. I've even seen Trent Lott's perfectly normal three-bedroom Pascagoula home described in Ivor Van Heerden's book, The Storm, as a "shorefront estate" (although there are many other reasons not to buy that particular Katrina book). There's no end of additional unenlightened and snide comments, such as those by the Washington Post's Anne Applebaum: "What interests me is why his house was built on the beach in the first place…Although I haven't had the pleasure of visiting the senator's home, it's pretty safe to guess that he wanted to live by the water because it's psychologically soothing and aesthetically pleasing. It's quieter too, having seagulls instead of neighbors. It's nicer to sit on the porch." Actually Trent Lott's home was built in 1854, and he bought it because he liked it ever since he used to ride by it on a bicycle when he was a kid. I rode by it, and other houses on Beach Blvd, on my bicycle too, many times, when I was a teenager growing up in Pascagoula (by the way, there are no mansions in Pascagoula, although most of the forty-four historic residences that were to be part of a historic district, were destroyed).

And this brings me to a point which ties back into the area we'll visit today. There were many historic places destroyed by Katrina that dated back to the 1850s or even older. But we are not even aware in the historical record of any storm of this nature, that so completely obliterated civilization, in any single part of the very large area destroyed by this one storm, even if we go back further than 150 years. Even Camille did not remove a significant number of historical buildings.

All along the Gulf Coast, people were living in places where buildings had stood for over 150 years. The scale of destruction of this storm was unprecedented and unforeseen. And by that I don't mean that people were unaware of the risk of hurricanes, but rather in the sense that growing up around buildings that had survived that many years, in a culture that was focused on history, ingrained a sense of continuity that colored perceptions of what would be at risk. Some simply could not imagine a storm that would completely remove buildings that had been around for generations. And perhaps this perspective is one that is unique to the Southern experience. By comparison, try to imagine a situation where Boston would be without Faneuil Hall, Philadelphia without Independence Hall, or, Colonial Williamsburg, gone.

And the best example of this has to be the historic West Rigolets lighthouse, which was built in 1855, and destroyed by Katrina. When you picture a lighthouse, the image that comes to mind is something sturdily built with thick stone walls, but actually, this particular lighthouse was a simple wooden house. And it wasn't built on some protected hill – it was right out over the water, in what is a most vulnerable location, where it had stood without being completely destroyed (over the years it did get occasional damage from hurricanes) for 150 years.

Historic West Rigolets Lighthouse

Photographer unknown

This Google Earth image shows the lighthouse before it was destroyed.

Google Earth -- Historic West Rigolets Lighthouse

Image courtesy of Google Earth

Nearby, historic Fort Pike, built in 1818, sustained serious damage from the surge:

Google Earth -- Historic West Rigolets Lighthouse

Image courtesy of Wikipedia

Here is another Google Earth image of the fort prior to Katrina.

Google Earth -- Historic West Rigolets Lighthouse

Image courtesy of Google Earth

In the FEMA flood inundation map below, showing the path of Katrina with respect to this area, not surprisingly the entire area was swept by the surge. Along almost the entire length of Highway 90, on either side, were homes facing the water.

FEMA Orleans Inundation Map -- partial

Image courtesy of FEMA

The following three images from Google Earth, zooming in consecutively closer, shows what this area looked like before the hurricane (in the first one, the West Rigolets lighthouse was at the very tip of the peninsula, just past the top edge of the image).

Google Earth -- Greens Ditch overall

Image courtesy of Google Earth

Google Earth -- Greens Ditch closer

Image courtesy of Google Earth

Google Earth -- Greens Ditch zoom

Image courtesy of Google Earth

Here is another aerial from NOAA, of this area afterwards.

NOAA Katrina Images Greens Ditch

Image courtesy of NOAA -- link

And in this closeup from the above image, we see once again a landscape where everything familiar has been washed away:

NOAA Katrina Images Greens Ditch

Image courtesy of NOAA -- link

And here are some photographs of the area:

Greens Ditch surge damage Greens Ditch surge damage Greens Ditch surge damage

Next, we'll cross the Rigolets, into Slidell and Pearlington.

Hurricane Katrina Storm Surge:

Weather Underground Storm Surge Articles

Storm Surge Safety Actions

  • Minimize the distance you must travel to reach a safe location; the further you drive the higher the likelihood of encountering traffic congestion and other problems on the roadways.

  • Select the nearest possible evacuation destination, preferably within your local area, and map out your route. Do not get on the road without a planned route, or a place to go.

  • Choose the home of the closest friend or relative outside a designated evacuation zone and discuss your plan with them before hurricane season.

  • You may also choose a hotel/motel outside of the vulnerable area.

  • If neither of these options is available, consider the closest possible public shelter, preferably within your local area.

  • Use the evacuation routes designated by authorities and, if possible, become familiar with your route by driving it before an evacuation order is issued.

  • Contact your local emergency management office to register or get information regarding anyone in your household whom may require special assistance in order to evacuate.

  • Prepare a separate pet plan, most public shelters do not accept pets.

  • Prepare your home prior to leaving by boarding up doors and windows, securing or moving indoors all yard objects, and turning off all utilities.

  • Before leaving, fill your car with gas and withdraw extra money from the ATM.

  • Take all prescription medicines and special medical items, such as glasses and diapers.

  • If your family evacuation plan includes an RV, boat or trailer, leave early. Do not wait until the evacuation order or exodus is well underway to start your trip.

  • If you live in an evacuation zone and are ordered to evacuate by state or local officials, do so as quickly as possible. Do not wait or delay your departure, to do so will only increase your chances of being stuck in traffic, or even worse, not being able to get out at all.

  • Expect traffic congestion and delays during evacuations. Expect and plan for significantly longer travel times than normal to reach your family's intended destination.

  • Stay tuned to a local radio or television station and listen carefully for any advisories or specific instructions from local officials. Monitor your NOAA Weather Radio.

Source: NOAA

Hurricane Preparedness

National Hurricane Center

Centers for Disease Control & Prevention